This year is the sesquicentennial of the publication of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel Little Women. Based on Alcott’s own family and home in Concord, Massachusetts, the novel was immediately popular and has never been out of print. While the novel is a perennial favorite and culturally ubiquitous with multiple film and television adaptations, Little Women is rarely taught in American literature courses at the college and university level. In her newly released book Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters, Anne Boyd Rioux reports that the “Open Syllabus Project,” “a database of texts in all genres used in colleges and university courses,” ranks Little Women at 431. Walden comes in at 31 and Huckleberry Finn at 47.
There are many explanations for why the novel has been overlooked in the canon of American literature that is regularly taught and studied at the college level including its “popularity,” its stigma as children’s literature (Alcott herself called her novel “moral pap for the young”), and its emphasis on women’s lives and experiences–not to mention its length. Nonetheless, there is a case to be made for integrating Little Women into American literature survey and topics courses as a core text “students must know if they want to understand the roots of American and women’s literary traditions.”
Little Women, Realism, and Genre
Literary critic G.K Chesteron claimed that Little Women, published in 1868, “anticipated realism by at least twenty to thirty years.” Chesterton cites Professor Bhaer’s proposal to Jo as an illustration of the novel’s realism. Nether Jo nor Bhaer are idealized or romanticized; both are rain-soaked and unkempt as they awkwardly, yet authentically, express their love and loyalty to each other. While readers today may see the portrayal of the March sisters as overly-sentimental, “[e]arly reviewers almost unanimously viewed the emotions evoked by the novel as ordinary and natural.” Rather than seeing the novel as over-wrought and emotionally manipulative, its original readers saw it as “true to life.” Although Alcott enjoyed writing sensational and sentimental stories, “she staked her literary reputation on her realistic writing.” Indeed, Little Women can be taught as a realistic novel on par with those of Mark Twain, Henry James, and other exemplars of the tradition.
That said, Little Women can also be taught in the traditions of sentimental, domestic, and women’s literature and examined for the ways in which it conforms with and deviates from traditional generic conventions. With its portrayal of four young women navigating the transition from girlhood to womanhood, it could be taught as a bildungsroman, or coming of age novel. The depiction of Jo’s literary ambitions and trials, based on Alcott’s own, means it could also be taught as a künstlerroman, a novel of artistic development.
Literary Influence and Adaptations
Present-day writers as wide-ranging as Barbara Kingsolver, bell hooks, Anne Lamont, and J.K. Rowling have cited Alcott as an inspiration for their literary ambitions. Through the writerly Jo, Alcott has influenced women writers such as Mary Gordon, Anne Tyler, Gloria Steinem, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Jhumpa Lahiri. Little Women has left a mark on American and women’s literature, and studying it in our classes shows students its worth and provides them with an important context for understanding contemporary literature.
The novel has not only inspired multiple film and television adaptations, but several literary adaptations that could make terrific classroom pairings to explore issues of genre, gender, and point-of-view. Joyce Carol Oates’s 1982 A Bloodsmoor Romance is a satirical spoof of Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance, Alcott’s Little Women, and Alcott’s sensational thrillers. Geraldine Brooks’s Pulitzer Prize-winning March (2005) re-tells Little Women from the perspective of the absent Mr. March and emphasizes the injustices of the Civil War and slavery, both in the background of Alcott’s novel. English Pakastani author Sarvit Hasin’s This Wide Night (2006) re-casts the March sisters as “colonized subjects” after the end of British rule. The novel is told from the perspective of the girls’ neighbor Jimmy, thereby re-imagining the novel from Laurie’s perspective.
I haven’t taught the novel since 2013, but colleagues around the country tell me that their students are noticing and relating to the shy and reclusive Beth in ways they haven’t before. Perhaps Beth’s social anxiety and agoraphobia speak to a generation of students facing emotional and mental health issues; those of us in the classroom have witnessed a marked increase in emotional fragility and sensitivity among young people just in the past few years. The real-life Beth, Louisa May Alcott’s sister Lizzie Alcott, today probably would have been diagnosed with depression and anxiety. In the novel, Marmee is more worried about Beth’s “spirit” than her physical health.
Beth’s substance and significance as a character have been overlooked, although it is Beth who voices the most beloved themes of the novel—that family, home, and love matter most. Jo, the novel’s protagonist, changes because of Beth, as Beth’s illness and death prompt Jo’s passage into womanhood and her more serious literary aspirations. The recent BBC/PBS adaptation of Little Women on Masterpiece Classics pays much attention to Beth, especially compared to previous adaptations. This is another indication that Beth is receiving renewed recognition as a compelling and vital character, and that the novel continues to speak anew to each generation of readers.
Teaching Alcott’s Other Writing
Little Women was by no means Alcott’s only literary endeavor. Alcott’s other writing can be integrated into American literature classrooms to introduce a variety of themes and aesthetic and literary concerns. Her short story “Transcendental Wild Oats” (1873) tells of the Alcott family’s time living at Fruitlands, a utopian farming community led by Alcott’s father Bronson when Alcott was a young girl. It is a satirical critique of the toll that utopian reform takes on women. Because Alcott seriously considers women’s lives and experiences, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance (1852) should not be taught without it.
Alcott’s semi-autobiographical novel Work: A Story of Experience (1873) tells the story of a woman who seeks financial independence and pursues several career paths including actress and governess. Students relate to Christine Devon’s search for vocation—meaningful work that is also financially remunerative. They are also fascinated by her love interest David Sterling, supposedly based on Alcott’s teacher and friend Henry David Thoreau. Moods (1864), Alcott’s greatest literary ambition, portrays a woman who marries and then regrets it. The novel portrays Alcott’s early crushes on Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. I’m currently teaching it as a major text in my senior capstone on Transcendentalism along with Emerson’s Nature (1836), Fuller’s Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1843), and Thoreau’s Walden (1854).
Alcott’s first literary success was Hospital Sketches (1863), based on her work as a Union Army nurse during the Civil War. Taken directly from Alcott’s letters home to her family in Concord, Hospital Sketches’s discussions of women’s work, women and war, and women and medicine make it a teaching possibility for a wide range of interdisciplinary and general education courses. That Alcott wrote sensational, darker fiction is well known at this point. My favorite of these stories is based on Alcott’s experience as a war nurse. “My Contraband” (1863) is about a formerly enslaved man and Union hospital orderly who exacts revenge on his former master, a captured Confederate soldier and patient in the hospital. Alcott’s Robert is no Uncle Tom, and the short story is an antidote to the romantic racialism of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) and other anti-slavery and abolitionist literature of the day.
Men Should Read Little Women
Perhaps a major factor keeping some instructors from teaching Little Women is its very title and the fact that it is an overtly gendered novel. Women and girls, of course, have always been asked to read and identify with literature written from the male perspective. All too often when making decisions about syllabi and reading lists, we may, consciously or not, consider the male experience as the universal default. Yet over the years, I have found that all of my students—women and men alike—love reading Little Women. Some of the novel’s noted male fans have included Teddy Roosevelt, George Orwell, and Rudyard Kipling.
Little Women passes the Bechdel test with flying colors, and Rioux reminds that it is important for boys and men to occasionally, at least, read books about girls, particularly books in which “girls appear as individuals, rather than as extensions” of male protagonists. Jane Roland Martin writes: “Given that the ability to take the point of view of another is a basic element of morality itself, it is unconscionable—I would say positively immoral—to deprive [boys] of the opportunity of identifying with the other half of humanity. . . . How can boys respect girls if they are never encouraged to see the world as girls do?”
Teaching Little Women at 150 provides today’s students with opportunities to think deeply about gender, genre, literary influence, and the tension between “popular” and classic literature. Its themes and characters resonate with audiences today more than ever, as indicated by several new adaptions, including the BBC/PBS adaptation that appeared earlier this year. A new film adaptation directed by Greta Gerwig and featuring Meryle Streep as Aunt March will be released in 2019, and an adaptation set in the present day starring Lea Thompson as Marmee will come out later this year.
Have you ever taught Little Women or any of its adaptations? In what classes and contexts? How did your students respond? Do you know of other great resources for teaching the novel? Please leave your comments below!
Select Resources for Teaching Little Women
Louisa May Alcott. Little Women. 1868. Norton Critical Edition. Eds. Anne K. Phillips and Gregory Eiselein. Norton, 2004.
Along with the novel itself, this edition includes contemporary reviews and relevant cultural and literary contexts such as excerpts from Pilgrims Progress and Alcott’s sensational fiction.
John Matteson, editor. The Annotated Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Norton, 2015.
This edition includes a scholarly introduction and annotations, including a nineteenth-century recipe for pickled limes!
Anne Boyd Rioux. Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters. Norton, 2018.
Rioux’s book is a “must have” resource for teaching Little Women. Her chapters on Little Women’s literary and cultural influence and its portrayal of female development are excellent lecture and classroom resources.
Elaine Showalter, ed. Alternative Alcott. Rutgers, 1998.
This volume contains many of Alcott’s lesser-known works cited in this blog post, including Hospital Sketches, “Transcendental Wild Oats,” Work: A Story of Experience, and “My Contraband.”